Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Epping Missouri

Three BIllboards Outside Epping, Missouri, dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017
My disappointment at Three Billboards outside Epping, Missouri  is only exaggerated by the success with which it is being showered. As I rode home after seeing the film, I was sad and stunned to think that a film in which no one is asked to take responsibility for their crimes, no one has firm commitments and consistency of character, not one single character is redeemable, despite the fact that they are all redeemed, is on track to winning Oscar Awards. I have never been much in agreement with the jurists of the Academy Awards, but the success of this film is disturbing for a number of reasons.  
Three BIllboards Outside Epping, Missouri, dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017
Yes, Frances McDormand is a great actor and yes, she might win an academy award, but that doesn’t make the actions of the character she plays in anyway condonable. Her Mildred Hayes is allowed to drill a hole through a fat dentist’s finger nail, set the local police station alight and disfigure the face of the bad cop, and promise to kill the rapist and murderer of her daughter, without reprisal. No one in Three Billboards is asked to face the consequences of their actions. I understand that the film’s anti-authority politics is important – the critique of the police as institution (which turns out unfounded) in which a single bad apple is often to blame — but even that narrative is not convincing when the angry cop merely loses his job for throwing a young man out the window and beating him up on the street. Said cop then swiftly has a character change across an edit, thus becoming someone not so bad afterall. Once again, he suffers no retribution for his violence. Indeed, his racist, misogynist vitriol can all be overlooked by Mildred when he tells her that he has found the killer of her daughter. Miraculously, the two who began the film as enemies are so chummy that they conspire to go on a road trip to hunt down the killer of Mildred’s daughter. This change of heart completely erases all Mildred’s convictions, and with them, my conviction about her revenge.

There is a chance that the film is a self-conscious satire on the liberty with which people in these parts of America freely escape punishment for their crimes in the interests of white, middle-class superiority. But I don’t buy this argument. The unevenness of the characterization, the badly handled discourse on race, the inconsistency of gender representations may all be in the service of comedy and entertainment, but it’s without social consciousness.
Taste of Cement, dir. Ziad Kalthoum, 2017
Even Spielberg’s hokey film, The Post, is more legitimate than Three Billboards. Spielberg might be too attached to the cute moments such as kids selling lemonade that have no narrative use whatsoever, but at least Spielberg has a conviction and adheres to it. Of course, I probably don’t need to say, if asked, I would give none of these films prizes. A big shining cast and a massive budget a great film does not make. For my money, I would rather see The Taste of Cement win prizes and be applauded by the glitterati. The Taste of Cement is a film about Syrian migrants working on a building site in Beirut. It contains real life drama and horror, rather than a fictionalized account in which everyone gets off scot-free as they drive off to tame wild American servicemen who committee heinous crimes. It's also a film whose use of the camera and formal representations echo the entrapment of its human subjects. But no one cares about The Taste of Cement because it’s about the plight of poor migrants effectively imprisoned by the same world that is preoccupied with its unconvincing revenge narratives.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hugenots, Gormleys, and Guerins in Canterbury Cathedral

Hugenot Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral
I have worked in Canterbury for 17 years, but with my French name, my Australian passport, my love of the sun, I have never felt at home in cold, wet, white, middle-class Kent. But this week I came close. I took a New York friend to visit the Canterbury cathedral to show off a camaraderie with my ancestors. I have been to the cathedral many times, for graduation, as a tourist, and in the early days, for evensong, but what I love most about it are the places where tourists don’t go. It’s an awe-inspiring structure, and fascinating for its labyrinthine corridors, extensions and rebuildings. Like most of Canterbury, however, the cathedral’s most interesting history is found underground and out of sight most of the year.
Memorial to Thomas à Becket
List of Hugenot Pasters (including Pierre Guerin)

While the tourists marvel at the memorial to Thomas à Becket at the spot where he was murdered by the men of Henry II, I took my friend down to the crypt to show him where I like to think I began. After living in France for overa decade, I have had to research my ancestry because I am so often asked with bewilderment (mostly by border police) why I have a French name and an Australian passport. I discovered that my name began, ironically, on the walls of the cathedral where I work in England. There on the walls of the Hugenot Chapel is written, as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries when they arrived having fled the persecution of Louis XIV and his French Catholics and were given refuge in Canterbury, the list of the Hugenot “strangers.” Among the initial wave of refugees was a pastor Pierre Guerin who, like me, thought his time in Canterbury would be transient. And like me, he ended up staying. What I didn’t know until I visited with my New York friend is that the chapel remains an active place of worship for Canterbury’s French community. Sure enough, the crypt area shows the vibrant signs of good use: flowers, half-burnt candles, calendars, prayer books and service sheets. Perhaps it’s not as remote down there as I had assumed.
Anthony Gormley, Transport, 2011

Wandering further into the depths of the crypt, outside the Hugenot Chapel, I was thrilled to find the Anthony Gormley sculpture suspended beneath the place above which is marked as the location of Thomas à Becket’s murder. Gormley’s Transport is the familiar shape of his body, but rather than being cast as his works usually are, it is made of medieval nails recovered from the Cathedral’s roof repairs. Gormley describes the sculpture as being about the human body in motion:

The body is less a thing than a place. A location where things happen. Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it sometimes sticking but mostly passing on, like us in this great cathedral with its centuries of building, adaptation, extension and all the thoughts, feelings and prayers that people have had and transmitted here. Click here

I understood the floating sculpture that is a collection of nails, to be both dangerous and liberating, as somehow connecting the plight of Thomas à Becket above and the Hugenots down in the crypt over centuries. For the one it was a place to die, and for the others a place of refuge. For me, the Cathedral is a place of ongoing discovery in which I get to find a sense of belonging, together with my persecuted ancestors.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Lise Sarfati, Oh Man, @ la galerie particulière

Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg11_08 2013
This small exhibition of Lise Sarfati’s large scale photographic prints in one of my favourite boutique galleries in the Marais was like stepping into another world. And at the same time, the worlds represented in the image are comfortably familiar. 

Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg14_08, 2013 
The photographs are composed of large swathes of the empty streets of downtown Los Angeles: filled with the colours of what look like previous occupants of the buildings, they represent a world that is both identifiable and anonymous. As I looked at the images before reading about them, I wondered if they were taken in Astoria, so generically urban American were the streets and the buildings that lined them. Given that they actually represented places and spaces on the other side of the country, it set me wondering about the uniqueness of the cities we live in. It’s this ambiguity and ambivalence between the familiar and the strange that makes the photographs about the locations as much as they are about the single figure that breaks the silence and emptiness of the same spaces.

Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg7_07 2013
The figure in the image is typically a young urban man. He is always alone, diminished in size as he walks through the deserted urban space that Sarfati represents as a city without a heart. Although they are alone and closed off to the world around them, each man clearly has a history and a story to tell. One has his head bowed, another looks around the corner of the post office, another is deep in thought as he stands waiting for someone or maybe no one. In turn, the solitary figure creates a tension for the viewer: his presence creates an encounter between me as I dive into the empty space, imagining it might be somewhere I know intimately, and a man whose story is still in the process of being written on the same streets.

Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg10_12 2012
The men are a facet of the architecture of the city, perfectly aligned with the geometrical lines of a wall edge, parallel to the infrastructure of the buildings they pass, and simultaneously, they interrupt the isolation of the same space as they bring their histories into its streets. They both belong to the abandoned spaces and disturb its solitude. The press release talks about the images in very dramatic terms, however, I found them to be much more realistic, simply asking for a series of encounters between all of the said elements of tension. The text also mentioned the high key lighting that bathes each image, but again, the conclusions it draws about this compositional element did not match my experience. The lighting is not dramatic or infusing the image with some kind of extraordinary illumination: rather, the lighting gives the photographs an openness that invites me to immerse myself in the spaces, even as they are already occupied by their presences and absences.